05/11/2012 02:50 EDT | Updated 07/11/2012 05:12 EDT

RCMP Letter Fuels Battle Over Gun Records


RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson has instructed chief firearms officers to ensure that any conditions they impose on gun store owners do not facilitate the creation of a long-gun registry.

In a letter sent Thursday, Paulson doesn't explicitly tell the CFOs that gun store owners should not keep ledgers that record the names and licence numbers of customers, but he carefully reminds them that Public Safety Minister Vic Toews doesn't want any records kept.

Paulson tells the CFOs that the passage of C-19, the bill that abolished the requirement for unrestricted long guns to be registered, "leaves no doubt that Parliament has sought to eliminate any form of a long-gun registry."

Toews sent a letter to Paulson and the CFOs on May 8 that said the Firearms Act should not be interpreted in such a way that CFOs think they can require licensing conditions that could recreate "some semblance" of a long-gun registry.

Section 58(1) of the Firearms Act gives CFOs the authority to attach conditions to licences, but Paulson says in his letter that when exercising that authority related to records kept by businesses, they must consider the will of Parliament and directions from the minister.

"Accordingly, as the commissioner of firearms, and pursuant to the direction issued by the minister of public safety on May 8, 2012, I instruct all chief firearms officers to ensure that the licensing conditions you impose on business records pursuant to the Firearms Act do not facilitate the creation of long-gun registries in your jurisdictions," Paulson writes.

The letter adds to a boiling debate between some provinces and the federal government, and groups such as the Canadian Shooting Sports Association (CSSA), that has emerged in the wake of the law scrapping the long-gun registry.

Conservative MP Candice Hoeppner, parliamentary secretary to Toews, said in an interview on Power & Politics Friday that she is pleased with Paulson's letter.

"The RCMP commissioner is expecting that CFOs will comply with C-19, the letter of the law and the spirit of the law in terms of ending the long gun registry," she told host Rosemary Barton.

Any person who purchases firearms in Canada must hold a valid firearms licence, a requirement that didn't change with the passage of C-19, and gun vendors for years have maintained ledgers of the weapons they sell. The ledgers list the make, model and serial number of the gun sold, as well as the name and firearms licence number of the purchaser.

Hoeppner said the ledgers amount to "back-door" registries and that government has put an end to the requirement for both businesses and individuals to register long guns. If store owners want to keep a ledger voluntarily, they are free to do so, but neither the government, nor CFOs, can force them, Hoeppner said.

And if a prospective buyer doesn't want to give a store owner their information, they don't have to buy the weapon there, she said.

She said she expects CFOs to listen to Paulson's instructions and comply with his wishes.

The RCMP manages a national database that keeps registration records for restricted and prohibited guns, but the portion dedicated to unrestricted long guns is now being dismantled.

Ontario wants ledgers kept

When C-19 amended the Firearms Act to scrap the long-gun registry, it did not reinstate an old requirement for store ledgers to be kept, but some CFOs have attempted to impose the rule using the authority given to them under the act to carry out their duties, and many store owners support their use.

Ontario's CFO, Ontario Provincial Police Supt. Chris Wyatt, recently wrote a letter to gun vendors outlining their responsibility to collect information about legal gun sales in the ledgers, a practice he says has been followed for decades and that is not affected by the ending of the long-gun registry.

Wyatt says he has received legal advice that Toews can't direct CFOs how to exercise the discretion that is afforded them under Section 58(1) of the act, and that he requires that ledgers be kept as a condition of the gun store owner's business licence.

Hoeppner, however, said CFOs can't use that provision "to try and circumvent the will of Parliament and what an actual act in its entire context reads."

Wyatt responded on Friday that Hoeppner's view is "not accurate."

"I can put reasonable conditions on a business license and ledgers are a reasonable condition," he told CBC News.

He also disagrees that ledgers are back-door registries and noted the Conservatives never called them that before and they've been around for years.

"The long gun registry and the business ledgers have different purposes," said Wyatt. "The business ledgers, the purpose is to prevent unlicencees, criminals and prohibited persons from acquiring firearms."

"Here you have these two separate systems. One is computerized, network, it's got lots of search capability and is accessible instantaneously to police. The ledgers aren't that at all."

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said Friday his province has no intention of creating a new registry, but it does want stores to keep records of who buys guns, despite federal objections.

McGuinty said stores have been collecting the information since the 1970s and if the federal government wants them to stop, it must be clear about that.

John Evers, president of the East Elgin Sportsmen's Association and a regional director of the CSSA, called the practice illegal in reaction to Wyatt's letter to store owners last week. He said he would lobby the government to stop any practice of collecting personal information about legal gun owners.

A few days later, Toews issued his letter to Paulson and the CFOs. It said the officers "are attempting to collect point of sale data that they are no longer authorized to collect pursuant to Bill C-19."

"To be clear, the Firearms Act neither authorizes this activity, nor any other measures that could facilitate the creation of a provincial long-gun registry," Toews wrote in the letter.

He asked the RCMP to notify him "immediately" if they learn that chief firearms officers are engaged in "unauthorized data collection."

Quebec has mounted a legal challenge preventing the destruction of federal long-gun registry records.

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